I met Chris Watts through a friend at the Department For International Trade. He can put a screen on your surgery ceiling that shows the sky — not a recording of some other sky, but the actual sky above your surgery. Imagine how relaxing that is for your patients. Chris Watts Lighting Design has been in demand around the world (the National Theatre in London, Euro Disney in Paris, the National Grand Theatre in Beijing); we caught up with the man to find out more. (NB the image above is not Chris’s work, it’s an image from Pinterest that resembles his project, which he goes into below.)

Chris, a bit of an obvious question: why is lighting important?

It is becoming more recognised that light can create a feeling that people associate with pleasant or unpleasant experiences. It can change how you think and feel, it’s also a bit subliminal in that some lighting schemes such as artificial daylight in offices actually improve productivity without the workers realising. I make lighting connect emotionally.

What can lighting do for anxiety?

It’s a lot about colour. The colour temperature talks to your eye and lets your body know when it’s OK to relax. The warmer the hue the more relaxed you become, and the warmer hues are associated with feelings of sunny summer days. Moving from soft to bright red changes the message to danger — like a stop sign — and people are tuned to that already. On the other hand you can help people in stressful situations become sharper with cool light. It’s about managing the level of alertness for the people in your space to add value, and a nice example of how far you can take this is the Scandinavia Airline SAS which has invested in a lounge with LED settings for daylight and night time hues so that passengers can mitigate jetlag by shoring up their circadian rhythms.

Have you ever been nervous at the dentist?

Yes, and even though I appreciate that clinically there needs to be bright white, there is very often way too much. It helps nervous patients if you divert their attention away from the procedure to wondering, ‘What is that over there on other side of room?’

What kind of lighting do patients prefer?

Fluorescent lights are definitely a no no, but luckily we now have cleaner technology so we can provide white light without overwhelming people. Too much causes headaches and creates anxiety because people associate it with unpleasant clinical things in their past. There’s a feeling that something horrible is going to happen to you and so, unless your patient is under general anaesthetic, you really should be looking at how to calm the patient down.

When did you start working for dentist clinics?

I’ve only just moved into this space. I was at a networking event and asked the people behind a 10-surgery project if they had a lighting designer. They didn’t, and after looking into it they decided it was a good idea. They have now accepted my scheme where clinicians can move between rooms and their lighting preferences — and those of their patients — follow them. I’ve proposed a mixture of lighting throughout the rest of the building: there’s more daylight in the decon room, and the staff room can be adjusted for meetings or downtime. The waiting room ceiling has a line guiding people where to go, a reassuring touch for patients who feel nervous — as I have done — while they wait. Knowing where you are going helps, and it feels good to be invited to interact with the space you’re in. Audio is also embedded in the scheme, so that all rooms have access to music playlists and intercoms.

Chris’s work at the Hall For Cornwall

How has your dental lighting scheme been received?

The team is looking forward to being in an environment that isn’t just standard lighting. Team members are showing appreciation that the company is forward thinking enough to serve their needs as well as their patients. The build is still underway but they already understand my thinking, which is great because I meet a lot of people who say they wish they had used a lighting designer instead of leaving it to the electrician. Often what happens is the electrician will install some downlights or something, then when the building opens and people use it they realise the lighting’s awful, but it’s a lot more expensive to have it changed at that point. Electricians don’t design, they install.

Tell us about the sky on the ceiling thing

Over the dental chairs will be a very large monitor displaying TV channels and moving images like the sea and the wind rushing through trees, and one of the images will be the actual sky above the building, so it’s as if you are looking straight through the roof. I was inspired by a brilliant installation in Chicago where the wall behind reception showed the Chicago skyline, as if the wall wasn’t there. The monitors can also show clinical scans and x-rays as needed.

One of Chris's favourite projects, The Minack Theatre

One of Chris’s favourite projects, The Minack Theatre

How do you approach a lighting design project?

There are three stages:

  1. Idea development. Here I absorb the views of my client and find out what the light is supposed to be saying.
  2. Specification. Part of my job is to know what’s available and how things connect together. That means clients either put it in as I say or they don’t get the scheme I’m proposing. It’s very detailed, to the millimetre, and all the fittings, schematics and circuitry are specified. I am a bit precious about this. The engineers appreciate the level of detail they get, which includes loading etc. It eases the mechanical consultant’s job, although they still have to do their own cable calculation by law, which is quite good because then they will have looked at my scheme and understood it.
  3. Delivery. Talking to the client on site, visits, commissioning. I follow it all the way through and make sure it’s as I like it.

What piece of work are you most proud of?

I have been very lucky. I’ve done the launch of the Jaguar X Type in Geneva, Disney in Paris, projects in Hong Kong and Beijing. The Minack Theatre in Cornwall was stunning because of its location and also we made a massive saving on their electricity bill, which paid for the installation within two years. It has a lifespan of 19 years, which is pretty good really.

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Chris Watts

“Fluorescent lights are definitely a no no”

Chris Watts, Chris Watts Lighting Design
Author: Jonathan Fine